Monday, February 06, 2017

Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons & The Demons Strike Back

Clearly, the best way to get me to actually watch my DVD/Blu-ray collection is to release a sequel to a movie in it; in order to be prepared for the cinematic viewing, I will watch that movie the night before (and, if I fall asleep, the next morning), but if it’s just a matter of the movie sitting there, nope, I’ll just go on Amazon to see if the movie that comes before whatever Chinese release for the weekend is streaming. You laugh, but I’ve got a copy of Trainspotting on order, because I somehow have not watched that in the past twenty years despite really liking Danny Boyle, Ewan MacGregor, etc., and I just saw a trailer for T2.

I was a bit surprised to see that The Demons Strike Back got a two-screen release at Boston Common, with one screen split between normal 2D & 3D DCPs while it played in 3D in Imax. It looks like a pretty last-minute thing, with there being far less audience for Resident Evil: The Final Chapter than anyone thought (the other non-museum Imax theaters in the area bumped its second week in favor of La La Land). It’s always kind of fun when a Tsui Hark movie gets that sort of release; he has dug big special effects for a long time and his remake of Dragon Gate Inn with Jet Li was one of the more entertaining uses of the giant 3D screen I can remember. This one wasn’t quite at that level, but still a lot of fun, and pretty well attended despite the theater apparently charging full price for a matinee screening.

Gung fu yu ga (Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 3/4 February 2017 in Jay’s Living Room (catch-up, Blu-ray)

Watching a movie twice in fairly short order is a luxury I don’t often afford myself - there are, after all, so many new things to watch that it seems like a bad idea at times, but I’m glad that I nodded off toward the end of my first viewing of this so that I felt the need to re-watch with different assumptions. I came in looking for a fairly typical Stephen Chow comedy and a typically Monkey King-centric version of Journey to the West, and found myself impatient the first time through; seeing it as a horror-comedy paired with a romance that is both endearingly sweet and goofy revealed just how impressive was Chow and co-director Derek Kwok managed was.

Horror comedies like this are hard, after all; how do you make something legitimately scary if you’re also trying to get laughs at the same time? In this case, it’s by skillfully mixing monster attacks that have deadly consequences with physical comedy that is always based upon the humans and their skills in fighting their attackers - whether supernaturally gifted or stumbling about, they never undercut the sense of danger. The set-up is always honest comedy with increasing danger, a recipe for being able to laugh without dismissing.

And the romance? Well, having Shu Qi is huge. She imbues expert demon-hunter Duan Xiaojie with plenty of tomboyish vigor, but it’s her ability to take that confidence and translate it into assurance that she finds this goofy looking guy worthy because of his moral code that makes them an interesting pairing rather than just the typical nerd fantasy of the beautiful girl falling for the dork (although Miss Duan being a pretty big goof on her own helps even it up). The complementary routes that they take to get the point of being together are spiritual in their own ways - it’s not just them falling in love, but something greater, the woman of action recognizing the greatness of holding strong to principles rather than just expediency, while he learns that devotion to “higher” goals does not mean one must forgo earthly ones. It’s a story that allows them to meet someplace much closer to the middle than usually happens in popcorn movies, even as the finale gives this discovery a lot more weight.

Plus, you know, it’s really funny, with Chow’s slapstick no less certain for being the first time he’s constructed it for other people rather than himself. Indeed, the material in here could have worked quite well if Chow had gone with the completely spoofy take originally envisioned; that he stretches himself in a couple different (and seemingly opposite) directions is a real treat.

Da nao tian zhu (Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 4 February 2017 in AMC Boston Common #2 (first-run, Imax 3D)

For all the noise some critics made last year about Stephen Chow’s The Mermaid being “hidden” because they hadn’t been paying attention to how release patterns and promotion for Chinese movies had changed, Chow’s previous film is the one that is truly overlooked: Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons was a shockingly good take on an oft-told tale, providing not just the expected slapstick and action but some genuine horror and thoughtful romance that all but went straight to video in America. It’s a tough act to follow, even with fellow Hong Kong legend Tsui Hark in the director’s chair, although when The Demons Strike Back disappoints, it’s less for its actual shortcomings than for only being the movie its predecessor appeared to be.

As it opens, monk Tang Seng (Kris Wu Yi-fan) and the three demons that he and Miss Duan captured before - fish creature “Sandy” Sha Wujing (Mengke Bateer), “Pigsy” Zhu Bajie (Yang Yiwei), and Monkey King Sun Wukong (Kenny Lin Geng-xin) - are voyaging to India to bring the original 22 Buddhist sutras to China, and it’s not going well: Not only are they broke, but Tang is sick, and the demons are starting to figure out that he may not be able to summon the Buddha’s Palm that defeated the Monkey King at will. And there are monsters everywhere, whether it be a mansion infested by spider demons; Bi-Qiu Kingdom with its childish, rejuvenated king (Bao Bei-er) and lovely prime minister (Yao Chen); or Rivermouth Village, home of young songstress “Felicity” Xiao Shan (Jelly Lin Yun).

Chow’s 2014 movie was, in many ways, set-up for this one, a movie-long lead-in to Tang Seng going on the grand adventure for which the series is named, but the set-up it left was intriguing, emphasizing that Tang Seng’s traveling companions are not just mischievous spirits, but killers, with Sun Wukong having devastated Tang in particularly cruel fashion and not having the others’ backstories of being decent people driven to a demonic state by rage. That tension is kind of thrilling when Hark focuses on it - there’s real danger in the distaste that Tang Seng and Sun Wukong have for each other, and it makes Pigsy and Sandy seem like a little more than the simple comic sidekicks they are often played as. The trouble with that, in this case, is twofold:

Full review on EFC.

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